Team USA certainly didn't expect to play Kazakhstan at the 2010 IIHF World Championships. (Photo by Thorsten Wagner/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Team USA Head Coach Scott Gordon is getting a lot of grief for his team's 13th place performance. It's no wonder, he had a roster full of NHL players, a top 5 ranked country who finished fourth the previous year, and a program that recently won an Olympic Silver Medal. On the surface, this appears to be a tremendous failure, an embarrassment for the program. Perhaps I'm more forgiving, but I'm willing to give Gordon a pass on this one. It'd be a shame if he never worked with USA Hockey in the future as a result.
Why would I give him a pass? Well, for one, looking at "13th" is too simplistic. Team USA were lumped in Group D, and while it didn't boast any of the three most successful hockey nations (Canada, Russia, and Sweden), it didn't include an obvious doormat, either. At the beginning of the tournament, I suggested this was the group that was most likely to produce a surprising result. I also picked Finland as the favourite, ahead of the USA. After the six days of competition, both those thoughts came to fruition. The Americans lost two games in OT by a score of 2-1, first to Germany, than to Denmark. Denmark also surprised Finland, beating them 4-1 in their opener. And as if to prove a point, Denmark then went out and lost to Germany. The scenario was a perfect storm, and one of the traditional powers was to be ousted. Finland went on to beat the USA, and all of a sudden the relegation round got a lot more talented.
You can't trust any result in this tournament... it truly is an 'on any given day' sporting event.
The relegation format is quite brutal to be honest. 3 games is all you get to determine who the top 3/4 of the teams are. You get an additional 3 games after that to determine the top half. Those 3 games usually sort things out a bit better. On the last day of competition, we had a tightly fought match between Slovakia and Germany for a quarterfinal spot. Slovakia, the more traditional hockey power, didn't win, but it was a close game and the Germans have been able to feed off the boisterous crowds to help stifle more talented opponents. Another game saw the Czechs pull off a win against Canada in order to qualify for a spot ahead of an upstart Norwegian team. Norway was proof positive that the game to game results couldn't be trusted: they lost 12-1 to Canada, lost again to Latvia 5-0, yet beat the Swiss 3-2 and had beaten the Czechs earlier in the tournament 3-2 as well.
It's tough to assign a result for a team based on such a small amount of games, and perhaps that's why the IIHF uses a world ranking system that is based on the results of 4 World Championships, as well as the most recent Olympic tournament. The USA will see their World Ranking fall as a result (they were ranked 3rd heading into the tournament and will likely fall to 5th or 6th), but they're still an elite hockey nation that could easily medal in 2011. And as if to prove a point about the difficulty of Group D... all three teams from that group that survived the initial cut qualified for the quarterfinals. Yes, Denmark and Germany, those lesser hockey nations (ranked 13th and 12th respectively heading into the tournament), are still alive while Slovakia (7th) and Belarus (9th) are out. In fact, despite USA's 13th place showing, Slovakia was only able to marginally gain on the USA's misfortune, as they finished 12th overall.
Now for some other stories that have developed over the World Championships...
- Team USA's main trouble was an inability to score goals in the preliminary stage... they only scored four total. Yet due to relegation round wins against Kazkhstan (10-0), France (4-0) and Italy (3-2 in a shootout), Brandon Dubinsky manages to be the tournament's leading scorer to date, with three goals and seven assists. I somehow doubt he will get any media All-Star selections or IIHF Directorate honours for his sudden prowess.
The better goalie this May? The one on the left. Photo via www.fisg.it
One player in the relegation round that should get some recognition from the media and Directorate (but won't) is Italian goaltender Daniel Bellissimo. Playing on the 15th place team, he had a .948 SV% and a 2.05 GAA, facing the third most shots in the tournament (Pal Grotnes of Norway and Edgars Malsakis of Latvia faced a few more). Despite those gaudy numbers, his teammates could only score enough goals to register one win and one shootout loss.
Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson will be the least hyped recent first round draft pick making his NHL debut in Edmonton next fall, but he's quite possibly been the best forward at this tournament. Four goals, four assists, and a +8. That's more points than any of Russia's stars, and no other Swedish player ranks in the top 30 for scoring currently.
- It's nice to see Denmark and Germany in the quarterfinals, that's for sure, but I think every fan loses a little when Latvia is knocked out. Hopefully their supporters stick around and keep the party going.
France avoided relegation thanks in large part to adding Stephane Da Costa to their roster in the preliminary round. Da Costa is only 20, and was a top freshman at Merrimack in the NCAA. He's a highly sought after collegiate free agent, and he contributed 3 points in 5 games, and was third amongst French forwards in ice time.
Stephane Da Costa: France's hockey hope. Photo via cache.daylife.com
- The best decision by Team Canada GM Mark Messier? Asking Ray Whitney to join the team. Worst decision? Making Chris Mason the undisputed #1 goalie. Mason's best NHL results have come when he is challenged for ice time (Vokoun in Nashville, Legace and Conklin in St. Louis). Worst break for Team Canada? Losing Ryan Smyth.
Nik Antropov better have a real good reason for not joining Team Kazakhstan for the Championships. Kazakhstan doesn't get many opportunities at this level, and his presence could have helped their team avoid relegation. You can bet that Austria will want Thomas Vanek to be on their team next year, and Slovenia will want Anze Kopitar to join them in a rare appearance at the top level. Stars can make a huge difference in such a short tournament.
- Hopefully this surge in interest in hockey in Germany can inspire some young athletes to take up the sport, because Germany has been losing ground in recent years to smaller countries who can arrange more training time for their national teams. Germany is one of the most important hockey markets in the world, as it has the potential to make hockey a premiere sport on the European continent. Germany draws Switzerland in their quarterfinal, and they couldn't have asked for a better draw. The Swiss will be tough, but Germany can definitely find a way to upset them. Marcel Goc can shut down some of the best forwards in the world, and the best the Swiss have to offer is Andreas Ambuhl.